Goodbye, I can feel a desire to gossip coming over me. I don't want to give in to it; narrative style should be brief.
[--from a letter to Simon Arnauld, Marquis de Pomponne, November 1664]
Clearly, this autumn has been my season for all things (well, two things) autobiographical. Following on from my look at some of Cicero's writings, here are a few notes on some more Selected Letters. This collection came from the pen of Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, Marquise de Sévigné (1626-96), a lady-in-waiting at the French royal court, well-educated literary enthusiast, and devoted mother. Her copious correspondance (some 1,100 letters survive) affords us an insider's view on many of the pivotal events of the time, both political (Fouquet's trial, the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the rise of Mme de Maintenon, the 'Glorious Revolution' in England) and cultural (the performance of new plays by the likes of Racine and Molière, the Jansenist movement).
But at the same time, her letters tend to be deeply personal - even if they were written, at least after 1673, with publication and thus a wider audience in mind. The vast majority of them were written to her beloved daughter Françoise, Mme de Grignan, whose marriage had removed her to the other end of the country (Provence, where her husband served as a prominent provincial official from 1671). Mme de Sévigné was devastated - visiting was at most an annual affair, and fraught with difficulties - so much so that an old friend warned her, she tells Françoise, that "I set you up as an idol in my heart, that this kind of idolatry was as dangerous as any other". In another letter dated the same month (April 1671), Mme de Sévigné writes,
And what do you think I am doing, my poor dear? Loving you, thinking of you, giving way to emotion at every turn more than I would like, concerning myself with your affairs, worrying about what you think, feeling your sufferings and pains, wanting to suffer them for you if possible, removing anything unpleasant from your heart as I used to clear your room of any tiresome people I saw haunting it; in a word, my dear, understanding deeply what it means to love someone more than oneself.
Her loneliness and sense of loss never left her, and are displayed, movingly, throughout her subsequent letters. Yet her daughter's absence from Paris also gave Mme de Sévigné someone to whom she could (and did) confide everything, from politics and religious controversies to court gossip, personal bereavement, and the most eyebrow-raising family news:
[Y]esterday [Charles, her son] came from the other end of Paris to tell me about the mishap that had befallen him. He had found a favourable opportunity, and yet, dare I say it? His little gee-gee stopped short at Lerida. It was such an extraordinary thing; the damsel had never found herself at such an entertainment in her life. The discomfited knight beat a retreat, thinking he was bewitched. And what will strike you as comic is that he was dying to tell me about this fiasco. We laughed a lot.
Mme de Sévigné was widowed at the age of 25 when her two children were still very young, and they were clearly central to her life. Indeed, the evident closeness and good humour of this family, for all the vast distances that so often separated them and for all Charles' rather misspent youth (he had a taste for actresses, to his mother's despair), make for a thoroughly endearing portrait of emotional life in the early-modern period - a much-appreciated human face for the reign of Louis XIV (r. 1661-1715).
A happier side of this may be seen in her (unusual, I gather, for her time and social standing) heartfelt appreciation for the quieter, solitary life she found in the countryside. In July 1671, for example, she commented in a letter, "I content myself with what can be written and I dream whatever should be dreamed; I have the time and place for it. [...] My son has gone now and that leaves a silence, tranquillity and solitude that I don't think it is easy to find anywhere else."
But the letters also give us insight into other, often quite bitter, realities of life in the period. Some of these are specific to women; I was struck by the several occasions, for example, on which Mme de Sévigné makes remarks such as "I love you dearly for not being pregnant" (March 1672), and similarly a month later:
I am so glad you are not pregnant. Alas, dear, do at least have the pleasure of being in good health and enjoying a restful life.
The birth of an heir was to be longed for, and celebrated when it occurred. But pregnancy itself - particularly, one supposes, when the pregnant woman is both a daughter and far away - was a terrible if inevitable risk, to be feared or at the very least greeted with ambivalence.
Increasingly, in the later letters, these realities are in the area of bereavements and the daily experience of old age and infirmity. A letter to her daughter of March 1680 shows both of these - and is particularly touching, I think, that she almost disregards her own loss here in the awareness of her friend's greater sorrow:
M. de La Rochefoucauld died last night [after a long illness]. My head is so full of this calamity and of our poor friend's overwhelming grief, that I must talk to you about it. [...]Where will Mme de La Fayette find such a friend, such society, so much gentleness, enjoyment, confidence and consideration for her and her son? She is infirm, she is confined to her room, cannot get about. M. de La Rochefoucauld was infirm too, and this state of affairs made them necessary to each other. Nothing could be compared to the confidence and charm of their friendship. Just think, and you will see that it is impossible to sustain a more cruel loss which time can do less to heal.
Mme de Sévigné's letters rarely deal entirely with a single topic; her news and interests ranged greatly, and the personal and the political sit alongside each other in consecutive paragraphs. The political side of things encompasses court gossip (December 1769: "The Court is very happy about the marriage of M. le Prince de Conti and Mlle de Blois. They are in love like characters in a novel.") and one-upmanship among the ladies-in-waiting, as in this from March 1671:
Mademoiselle's [Anne d'Orléans, Louis XIV's cousin] drink was served and the serviette had to be offered. I spied Mme de Gêvres slipping her glove off her skinny hand. I nudged Mme d'Arpajon, who understood, took off her own glove and advanced a step, cut out Gêvres and took and offered the serviette. Gêvres was covered with shame and looked very sheepish. [...] My dear, I'm spiteful - I was delighted.
...as well as striking glimpses of how stressful it must have been to be involved in the running of lavish courtly life. April 1671:
But now I learn, on coming here, something I can't get over and which drives out of my head what I am writing. It is that Vatel, the great Vatel, maître d'hôtel to M. Fouquet and now to Monsieur le Prince, this man whose ability surpassed all others, whose mental capacity was capable of carrying all the cares of a state - this man, then, whom I knew, seeing at eight o'clock this morning that the fish had not come, was unable to face the humiliation he saw about to overwhelm him and, in a word, stabbed himself.
Mme de Sévigné's gaze was also directed beyond the court. She is informative and opinionated on the big political events of her day: her letters from 1664, recounting the trial for corruption and treason of Nicolas Fouquet, Louis XIV's former finance minister, are particularly vivid. (If more than a little partisan: "The whole of France has heard and admired this answer" she tells the Marquis de Pomponne, concluding an account of Fouquet holding forth rather smugly and - in her eyes - showing up the prosecuting Chancellor).
Fouquet had enriched himself to quite unprecedented levels at the young king's expense, and gave every sign of being rather too ambitious. Louis came to the throne in 1643 (at the age of four), but had only taken charge of his own government in 1661 after a long and fraught minority, which had been riven by a civil war known as the Fronde (1648-53, triggered by noble and parlement resentment at the centralising government's infringements of their traditional privileges) and seen him controlled throughout by a succession of powerful chief ministers. Louis was thus determined to set his house in order and be seen to take charge. Fouquet was eventually convicted and sentenced to imprisonment, a term that Louis changed to lifelong banishment.
Mme de Sévigné and those of her noble circle were bitterly disappointed; Fouquet was one of their own, unlike his lower-born (but much more efficient and loyal) successor, Jean-Baptiste Colbert. Mme de Sévigné sets Louis' hostility to Fouquet in the context of that old medieval and early-modern euphemism for criticising the king, bad advisors ("Aren't you appalled" she remarks to Pomponne, "that people can put things in this way to a prince who would love truth and justice if he met them?"), although I can't help but wonder if her comments also reflect a wider-spread assumption that the young king was not yet his own master.
The other major topic on which I found Mme de Sévigné's attitude very illuminating was that of religion. Of Louis' Edict of Fontainebleau, which reversed the official toleration for Protestants ('Huguenots') laid down in the Edict of Nantes of 1598, and related persection of French Protestants, she wrote to her cousin, Bussy-Rabutin, in October 1685:
On the King's orders he is off to preach at Montpellier and in those provinces where so many have been converted without knowing why. Pere Bourdaloue will teach them why and turn them into good Catholics. The dragoons have been very good missionaries so far, and the preachers being sent now will make the work perfect. You will no doubt have seen the Edict by which the King revokes that of Nantes. Nothing is so fine as everything it contains, and no king has ever done nor will do anything more memorable.
Her assumptions here are entirely typical of her time: across both Catholic and Protestant Europe in the seventeenth century, religious non-conformists were seen as dangerous and subversive or at best misguided, a threat to the spiritual health of their community and (particularly in Louis XIV's France) an insult to the authority of the head of state. (There were obviously individual exceptions to this, one of whom was dear old James IV and I of England [r. 1603-25], who spent much of his reign wishing that people would all just get along, and at times trying to actively encourage it. He failed spectuarly and ended up getting embroiled in the Thirty Years' War - which itself because another contributing factor to why most people believed that folks not of their confessional persuasion Just Couldn't Be Trusted). History was much less kind over the Edict of Nantes. The subsequent exodus of the Huguenots to countries like the United Kingdom contributed to anti-French feeling therein (and thus to various anti-French military coalitions, which really put a damper on Louis' ambitions), and the Huguenots themselves took all sorts of industrial expertise (and thus economic growth at France's expense) to their new homelands.
Yet while Mme de Sévigné's baseline assumption might have been a polarised one, her letters also make it clear that her opinions were not fixed - as is so often presumed today, I think, of people in this period - and might be modified by circumstance and personal experience. Take the so-called 'Glorious Revolution' (neither revolutionary nor particularly glorious, of course) in England, by which the Catholic convert James II was driven from power - the English Parliament being equally terrified of their opposite numbers, religiously - and his place taken by his Dutch Protestant son-in-law, William of Orange.
Initially Mme de Sévigné followed the mainstream French view - and royal policy, since Louis was busy trying to prevent William making the crossing to England - that this was a terrible development, because a Catholic monarch in London was inherently a better thing, both for France and for the souls of the British. In a letter to Bussy-Rabutin in November 1688, she commented, "the wind is such a good Catholic that so far he [William] has been unable to sail." Yet closer acquaintance with both James II himself - who found refuge at the French court - and proper news about William's actions clearly combined to change her mind. In early January 1689, she sent her daughter two letters in quick succession:
[10th Jan] [William] is in London in the King's place but without taking his title, only seeking to re-establish a religion he thinks right and maintain the laws of the country without spilling a drop of blood. That is exactly the opposite of what we thought of him; these are widely divergent points of view. Meanwhile our King is doing divine things for their English Majesties, for is it not in the image of the Almighty to uphold a king who has been banished, betrayed, abandoned as he has?
[14th Jan] People are very pleased with the Queen, she is very intelligent. [...] Everything she says is right and sensible. Her husband [James II] is not the same thing at all; he is brave, but has a commonplace mind and he recounts everything that has happened in England with a lack of sympathy that deprives one of any for him.
Mme de Sévigné thus emerges from her letters as a charming, caring, intelligent and thoughtful woman, with a mischievous sense of humour, and a view of the world that reflected her time but could also adjust itself to fresh perspectives. History through the eyes of those who lived it: what could be more satisfying?
Really ought to get back to work now, so I'll close with one last extract: from a letter to her daughter, June 1672:
Goodbye, dearest one. Do try to banish those beastly bed-bugs from my room; the very thought of them frightens me to death. I am plagued with them here and don't know what to do. It must be far worse in Provence. My dear, this is a very silly letter. I had better go to bed.
(In the spirit of great/terrible paths not taken when it comes to post titles, begun with the Cicero post, I'd like to note that this one was almost "Maternité, c'est moi". It amused me for a minute or two. My better angel won the day, however...)